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Out of the Woods

A Waitsfield wilderness program offers troubled teens a second chance


Published September 26, 2007 at 8:20 p.m.

Most therapists practice in small, air-conditioned offices. Not Tyler “Ty” Maves. His digs measure about 13,000 acres, and the main amenity is a fire pit.

Maves, 31, and his wife Madhurri “Mod” Barefoot Maves, 30, are the founders and owners of True North Wilderness Program in Waitsfield. It’s a woodsy therapy option for teenagers suffering from such maladies as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Though it doesn’t grant official credit, True North is certified as an independent school with the state Department of Education and licensed as a residential childcare facility with the Department for Children and Families. So, while the place may seem like the essence of rustic simplicity, it’s actually a highly engineered clinical environment.

On a recent afternoon, Ty Maves meets a reporter in downtown Waitsfield and points his truck south on Route 100. After a mile or so, he turns onto a steep forest-access road and climbs through a tunnel of dense woods to the True North base camp, an angular, red meditation retreat sitting in a meadow ringed by goldenrod and ferns.

Attired in blue flannel and jeans, Maves could be one of those rugged models for a certain brand of cigarette. But his voice belies that image — he sounds like a classical-music DJ on public radio. Wilderness therapy “is something people really have to be interested in,” he explains in those mellifluous tones. “They have to want to learn about it, to be outside for a significant amount of time.”

Maves and his wife have certainly paid their wilderness-ed dues. The couple met in 1999 at SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs in Shoshone, Idaho, where they guided wilderness excursions together for about two-and-a-half years. Afterward, they moved to Portland, Oregon, to pursue parallel Master’s degrees in clinical social work.

In 2002, Ty and Mod, a native Vermonter, were considering a life on the West Coast. That plan was soon aborted. “The year we graduated, Portland cut a third of its social-services budget,” Ty recalls. “There was no chance of doing anything related to what we wanted to do.”

The couple returned to SUWS for another two-and-a-half-year stint. In 2005, they decided to start their own wilderness program back in Vermont, on land owned by Mod’s family. Now, True North is one of more than 100 registered therapeutic wilderness schools in the United States — only four of which are located in New England, Maves points out. True North students roam on 500 acres of private land, as well as another 12,500 acres of state forest.

A typical stay runs about six to eight weeks, at a cost of $20,000 to $25,000. While True North offers occasional financial assistance, it doesn’t have official scholarships yet. Most students are referred to the program by private educational consultants, guidance counselors, psychiatrists or psychologists from around the country, but that doesn’t mean they’re pampered on arrival. Sitting in the base-camp meadow, Maves says, “Every once in a while you get the Outward Bound and [National Outdoor Leadership School] type. But [our program] is a little more primitive.” For starters, students camp in simple self-designed shelters, not tents.

According to Maves, one of the strongest aspects of the program is its counterintuitive pedagogical approach. True North guides let teenagers set their own goals — and make their own mistakes — by requiring them to learn survival skills such as fire-building, shelter-making and cooking by trial and error. “It’s basic human-existence stuff, but nevertheless, they get overwhelmed by these tasks,” acknowledges Maves. “They think, ‘Great, it’s up to me!’ Then they think, ‘Oh, my God, it’s totally up to me!’”

If the activities make True North sound like summer camp, it’s a calculated illusion. While students think they’ve been left to their own devices, Maves and his roughly 20-member staff are busy making detailed behavioral observations. Some students act “victim-y”; others are “pleasers.” These observations lay the groundwork for child-specific counseling sessions. “They have no idea that we’re watching for this kind of stuff,” Maves says with a coy smile.


At True North, physical hardship tends to help students reach a behavioral turning point. Maves says that, at first, every student processes the program on a “punitive” level. But “about halfway through, they abandon that and recognize new opportunity,” he adds. “That’s the hook — for them to say, ‘I want to try something else. I want to do something different.’”

After a typical epiphany, most True North teens spend a few additional weeks in the woods, all the while communicating with guides, fellow students and — through guided letter exchanges — their parents. The length of each stay depends on individual needs. To close out the program, each student goes through a final nine-day “summit,” at which he or she makes a scrapbook, or “transition portfolio,” and designs a “legacy project.” That’s followed by a self-designed graduation ceremony attended by the student’s family.

Speaking from California on the condition of anonymity, one single mom sings True North’s praises. Before coming to Vermont, this woman’s 15-year-old daughter was in trouble: bad grades, ADHD, “self-esteem issues,” etc. Over the course of a summer, however, the girl’s confidence level soared. Thanks in part to their guided letter exchange, mother and daughter were able to repair their relationship. “My daughter attributes the beginning of her life to True North,” the woman states flatly. “She feels that it was the turn-around.”

Every student at True North appears to undergo some kind of metamorphosis, but this student’s was particularly intense. After struggling for several days to build a fire, her mother says, she ran away, then called Mom from a nearby gas station begging to come home. Mod Maves advised the mother to be firm, so she refused to assist her child. “For my daughter, that was the big ‘no,’” her mother recalls. “That was the turning point for her because I set a hard boundary. She was able to fall back on her own resources . . . so she went back to the program and made the fire that she hadn’t been able to do.”

At $435 per day, True North might be dismissed by many parents and educators as an elitist, overpriced institution. But for this California mother, who isn’t wealthy, it was a priceless opportunity. “All of these [therapeutic wilderness] programs are a sacrifice,” she insists, “but it’s just what I need to do, because I know it’s the right thing.” Now, a year later, her daughter is attending a therapeutic high school in Montana.


Back at True North, Ty Maves crosses the base-camp meadow, climbs a wooded hill, and plops down next to a fire pit. Already sitting there are True North instructors Stefan Zwahlen, 35, and Laurel Fulton, 26. They’re here to support a student who’s “soloing” — i.e., spending time alone in the woods for a few days before embarking on his nine-day “summit.” Zwahlen, bearded and soft-spoken, tends the fire while Fulton rocks in a camp chair. Tarps, water bottles and a guitar litter the guides’ surroundings, as if they were lounging at a reggae festival.

These good vibes, Zwahlen explains, reflect True North’s counterintuitive therapeutic style. “We’re like mirrors a lot of the time,” the guide says, tapping a stick on a rock. “We’re standing at the outside with our hands ready, making sure they don’t fall.”

From a nearby stump, Ty Maves explains that he and Mod chose the term “guides” rather than “instructors” to emphasize a commitment to passive receptivity. At True North, a traditional Good Samaritan, community-service approach doesn’t fly. Maves recalls having discouraged Zwahlen from helping students fetch firewood. Guides “try not to use their power to be an authority,” the co-founder notes, adding that good guides tend to “open up.”

“Opening up” can mean, um, lying — but to a good end. Maves, who likens his guides to “puppet masters,” insists role-playing is an important skill. “The guides are part of the show,” he says. Zwahlen admits he’ll exaggerate emotions in order to elicit specific responses from students. Instead of interrogating unruly ones with questions such as “What the hell? Why don’t you get it?” he’ll feign a “disrespected” or “sad” attitude. “You’re not even controlling emotions,” he insists. “You’re just kind of letting them go where they need to.”

One side effect of role-playing is that the guides experience emotional and behavioral revelations along with their teenage charges. Zwahlen, for example, likens his job to “self-control training.” Fulton says her time in the woods yields a surprising degree of personal insight. “Some of the patterns I was getting caught up in here?” she says. “I realized that they weren’t serving me in my real life, either.”

Around 6:30 the conversation tapers off, and it’s just as well: The solo student will be returning to this fire pit for dinner and a “truth circle” with guides and fellow teens. Maves bids Zwahlen and Fulton goodnight and begins his descent back to base camp. At this point in the day, the breeze feels crisp but still summery.

Climbing into his truck, Maves mentions one last irony. While guides discover connections between their wilderness work and personal lives, he says, students joke about which is the “real world” — this Vermont wilderness, or the civilized environments they’ve come from. “It’s a hilarious debate,” he says, “because both sides can win the argument very easily.”

Insurance providers, though, don’t get the joke. “Some companies will say, ‘Tell me how many hours of therapy you’re doing,’” Maves says, chuckling. “I’ll say, ‘We’re doing therapy all the time.’”